Unexpected ways to find garden success

Over the past month I have begun to host family-friendly gardening workshops in my backyard (with the help of my co-host!). Most of the workshops have been free, so to make people feel like they have “registered” I asked them to answer a few questions about what their gardening challenges are and what they’d like their kids to get out of the experience. Okay, I admit it, in part I was just plain curious to know what people would say.

The answers revealed what you may expect from parents who wanted to participate in a family-friendly gardening workshop—many wanted their kids to know where food came from and to experience nature close-up.

I hoped that by preparing for these workshops I would have a whole bunch of wonderful content to share on the blog. And I do! But in the midst of the busyness of preparing and the chaos of getting 20 pairs of hands (aged six months+) digging in the soil all at once, I have not yet translated the workshop experience to a blog format. I didn’t even take a single picture during the first one.

During this same month of workshops the weather has been unseasonably, no, incredibly warm. May 1st was HOT, eerily so, but we took advantage of it and headed to the beach (for the 3rd time in two weeks, unheard of during a Vancouver spring).

And at the beach we did all the typical beach-y things, including this:

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We put our heads down and dug in sand, poured water and played in the elements with complete focus. It was then that I had an epiphany: playing on the beach we were achieving many of those things that the parents at the workshop wanted for their kids. We were immersed in the textures of the sand, the joy of pouring water and transforming natural elements to a small garden of our imagination’s making. We were in close connection to nature and we were having fun!

True, we weren’t learning how food grows, but the kids did decide to create a garden for the castle, their hearts were gardening. And I think that is what really counts.

When people talk about a connection to nature they are not usually thinking of an intellectual connection, it is something that comes from the heart. Play brings that heart connection.

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” –  Fred Rogers

And this is where “learning” in the formal, adult understanding of the word departs from how children learn. If you can trust that play is a path to learning you can enjoy the gift of an incredible day at the beach with friends with no guilt for how weedy or unplanted your garden may be. A family garden may just have to be a messy one.

So, go ahead, count your sandcastles as a gardening success. After all—

 

“Play is the highest form of research.” – Albert Einstein

Why Earth Day is more important than ever

It’s amazing, today marks the 46th Earth Day to be celebrated in North America.

Earth Day as we know it got it’s start in 1970 as the impacts of toxic, persistent agricultural pesticides and unabated industrial pollution were beginning to be recognized. Earth Day became a time that people would gather together and give back to the earth—planting trees, beach clean ups and other environmentally worthy acts.

The last time I wrote about Earth Day I was focused on doing this type of Earth give-back too. Don’t get me wrong, I do think it is worthwhile to shift our focus, for one day or many, to consciously try to lighten our footprint and repair some of the environmental damage that has been done. But increasingly when I think of the “Earth”, I think of how much nature contributes to our own well-being.

In recent years there has been a surge of neuroscience and psychology research that measures the positive benefits that time in nature has on human mental health and well-being. For example:

Stanford’s Gregory Bratman designed an experiment in which participants took a 50-minute walk in either a natural or an urban environment. People who took the nature walk experienced decreased anxiety, brooding and negative emotion and increased memory performance. Bratman’s team found walking in natural environments can decrease rumination, the unhealthy but familiar habit of thinking over and over about causes and consequences of negative experiences. Their study also showed neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness was reduced in participants who walked through nature compared with those who walked through an urban environment.

Korean researchers investigated the differences in brain activity when volunteers just looked at urban versus natural scenery. For those viewing urban images, MRI scans showed increased blood flow to the amygdala region. In contrast, areas of the brain associated with empathy and altruism lit up for those who viewed natural scenes.

In Japan, scientists found people spending time in nature — shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” — inhale “beneficial bacteria, plant-derived essential oils and negatively-charged ions” which interact with gut bacteria to strengthen the body’s immune system and improve both mental and physical health.

Nature keeps us healthy. We should be keeping nature healthy too, and bring nature more closely into our everyday lives. How’s that for an Earth Day commitment!

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It is becoming increasingly apparent that considering the environmental impacts of our actions is not just about doing something good for the planet, it’s about securing a healthy future for humans. We’re in this together. And that is doubly true for the littlest humans among us who have a lot of living left to do on this blue planet.

So while I get a certain sense of nostalgia when my kids tell me that they are talking about the importance of recycling at daycare in the lead up to Earth Day (recycling is such a 90’s enviro issue!), I also want them to appreciate that there is a deeper reason for caring for the Earth. As a study published in Nature shows, as we become an increasingly urbanized species we are more susceptible to stress, anxiety and depression. Researchers found people who lived in cities for their first 15 years are more likely to have a permanently raised sensitivity to stress.

Spending time in nature will be more important for this generation of children than ever. Scientist, advocate, nature-lover and Earth Day pioneer Rachel Carson summed up the incredible gift that Earth gives us most eloquently—

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
— Rachel Carson

Happy Earth Day to you and yours.

It’s a journey

The garden is a microcosm of life. And gardening with kids, like so many things, is about the journey, not the destination. Yes, your first harvest is an important moment in your garden calendar, but there is so much more to experience.

I’m still only a few years into my gardening with kids journey, we still have a lot of uncharted territory to go. Will my youngest ever get tired of digging in the soil and feeding worms to the chickens? Will my oldest make a first business from selling cut flowers? She really loves flowers, her brother really loves to dig.

If you’re just getting started here are a few steps to get you on your way.

Garden with kids_IMAGE

The secret is the soil

If you’re feeling like this is the year to garden, you’re right. There has never been a better time to dig up a patch of lawn or fill those unused planter boxes with fresh soil.

Yes, food prices are climbing  and your efforts in the garden have an increasing economic value, but something else is happening while you are out there seeding and weeding your garden plot.

In preparation for my first family-friendly garden workshop I have been thinking a lot about soil. The more I read, the more I realize that soil is where all of the magic starts. Imagine this (from The Atlantic):

There can be 10,000 to 50,000 species in less than a teaspoon of soil. In that same teaspoon of soil, there are more microbes than there are people on the earth. In a handful of healthy soil, there is more biodiversity in just the bacterial community than you will find in all the animals of the Amazon basin.

Seriously. More biodiversity than in the animals of the Amazon! But this biodiversity is not just for looks, it has a function.

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Thanks to research like the five-year, National Institutes of Health’s Human Microbiome Project we now know that our health is inextricably linked to the health of microbes in our gut, mouth, nasal passages, and other “habitats” in and on us. We are not just our bodies, we are a residence for microbes with whom we have coevolved, who perform critical functions and provide services to us, and who outnumber our own human cells ten to one.

As above, so below.

A healthy human is an ecosystem of microbes, and so is healthy soil. Industrial agriculture has depleted soil microbes through heavy tilling, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and not adding organic matter–microbe food. Antibiotics and highly processed foods similarly destroy microbes in our gut.

Seeking out foods that reverse these trends–as in organic and unprocessed–is an obvious step in the right direction for restoring microbe diversity in our own inner ecosystem as well as the ecosystems around us. But don’t underestimate the importance of your own garden efforts.

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Digging in healthy soil yourself means you will be exposed to soil microbes and recent research has shown they can improve mood, boost immunity and reduce vulnerability to depression.

Previous studies have linked early childhood exposure to bacteria to protection against allergies and asthma in adulthood. The new finding take this idea, called the “hygiene hypothesis,” a step further, and suggests bacteria-exposure not only boosts our immune systems, but alters our vulnerability to conditions such as depression as well.

The secret is in the soil my friends! Here’s how to boost soil health to maximize your microbes:

  • Protect your soil from hard rains & winter weather by mulching or cover cropping
  • Practice no-till agriculture, you do not need to dig or plow your beds yearly
  • Avoid synthetic chemicals which kill microbes
  • Add compost, especially worm compost, to give microbes plenty of food to thrive on

While you’re out there hauling compost or building new beds in this fine spring weather don’t be afraid to breathe deep. Rejoice in getting dirt under your fingernails, for city-dwellers soil is something like a long lost friend.

Happy spring!

Grow Together: family workshops

I’m taking the plunge. I’m committing. I’m going to host family-friendly garden workshops in my backyard!

I have to admit I am nervous, but I’m also excited about the idea of parents and kids having hands-on experiences with worms, soil, seeds and what they can grow together in a kid-friendly environment. So often adult-learning and kid-learning take place in separate spaces.

So, here it is, da-da-da-dah!, our first family-friendly gardening workshop. If all goes well there will be more to come. Check out our new workshop page for more details.

If you’re in Vancouver and want to attend (yay!), you’ll find more details below. Email me to register!

If you’re not close by, not to worry, I’ll be sharing our experiences on the blog.

Grow Together Workshops_email

Ode to the beach (winter version)

When someone says “beach” the first things that come to mind are often summer, sunshine, swimming and ice cream. I love all of the things, but this winter I found a new appreciation for the winter beach experience.

A multigenerational team of explorers (aka my extended family) discovered that the winter beach offers streams to fjord, sand banks to slide on, endless rocks to chuck and treasures of beach glass to hunt for—all without getting a sun burn.

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Our time exploring the winter beach-scape were some of my favourite moments of the holidays. There was a big storm that entirely changed the streams and sand banks overnight. We went on a night walk exploring the beach with flashlights, a big hit since we rarely experience real dark and a sky full of stars. With my kids approaching 5 and 2 1/2 it made me wonder what kind of memories they may make from these places and experiences.

For many adults when we reflect on our dearest childhood memories nature often plays a role—being outside in a thunderstorm, the quietness of a lake during an early morning fishing trip or the sweet smell of wildflowers in the heat of the summer. I’m sure you can vividly re-call a few of your own childhood nature experiences.

If you’re reading this blog, you probably are well aware that today’s kids have far fewer opportunities to play freely outside as we did: compared to the 1970s, American children now spend 50 percent less time in unstructured outdoor activities* and this finding is pretty consistent across Canada and the UK. I can’t help but feel saddened by this fact, because in my heart of hearts I think most kids are happiest when they are outside freely playing. In fact, I think most people are happiest that way.

Playing on the winter beach was a good reminder of how simple it can be to get outside. Fresh air, water, rocks, logs and unstructured time. A perfect counterbalance to the more frenzied side of the holidays. Will my kids remember these beach experiences? I don’t know. But their contentment in the moment suggests that they appreciate it enough right now to make it worthwhile. I’m pretty sure all of the adults present will be holding onto these memories for years to come too 🙂

What are some of your favourite winter places to get outside?

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A summer hide out for your sweetest peas

Hello and Happy Earth Day everyone! A special hello if you’ve just joined us.

I had the opportunity last week to share garden advice with yoyomama readers and many new folks are joining us on these weekly posts. Hooray! Welcome! This is a great day (and time of year) to get inspired about all things green, growing, outdoors and adventurous.

This week, as an Earth Day tribute, I’m sharing this how-to project for making your own little people summer hide out. This project can be adapted to work in a garden, lawn or balcony and it’s the perfect way to get yourself and your kidlets into the garden. Easy, fragrant, edible and irresistible all in one.

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Expanding on the classic idea of bean tee-pees, we’re going to make a roomier version with more plant diversity. Here’s what you’ll need and how-to do it:

  • 5 to 8 long poles (bamboo works well)
  • Twine, string or rubber connectors to tie the poles together
  • Net or string to go between the poles
  • Your choice of seeds for climbing plants
    •  Sweet pea flowers
    • Nasturtium flowers
    • Pole or runner beans
    • Climbing varieties of snap or shelling peas

Prepare the soil where the poles will be pressed into the ground. If your tee pee is on the lawn, remove grass and dig in compost, a little lime will help too. If you’re doing this in the garden or in containers on a balcony, mix in compost and prepare the beds/containers as you would for any new seeds.

Arrange the poles in a tee-pee shape, so that you have enough space in the centre for a few small people to comfortably gather.

Tie the tops together with string or use these handy rubber connectors that you can find at your local garden store. To ensure your vines have plenty of places to climb you can also string a net or string between the poles.

beginnings of pea tee pee

To grow a green oasis that provides flowers, fragrance, nourishment and plenty of leafy greens for shade and shelter choose a mix of seeds:

Sweet peas will provide you with lovely flowers that you can cut again and again for bouquets and play. There are many varieties of sweet peas in all sorts of colours, the ones with larger flowers have less scent so I prefer heritage varieties, like Matacuna, that have an incredible fragrance.

Nasturiums are another climbing flower that produces edible flowers in abundance and has large leaves that are perfect for green hideouts.

Pole beans and runner beans are how bean tee-pees got their start. Scarlet runner beans have bright flowers and are rampant growers. Their beans are less preferred for culinary purposes, but for snacking right off the vine they will be just fine. Adding pole beans—my daughter has already picked out a purple variety—will provide another nutritious snack that you will want to harvest for dinner too. If you’re in a cooler climatic zone (like Canada or the midwest) wait until May to plant your bean seeds.

There are many varieties of snap peas and shelling peas, some grow on short vines and some climb high, so make sure you choose ones that will grow to 6′ or higher for your tee pee. Peas are another favourite among the little gardener set to eat right off the vine or harvest for meals.

Plant your seeds the depth and spacing recommended on the packets (about 1/2″ depth and a few inches apart) and mix the types of seeds as you plant around the tee-pee or plant the nasturtiums as an outer ring as they’ll happily ramble at ground level. Water, wait, weed if necessary, and as plants begin to grow you can help place them on the netting and poles to guide them upward.

pea bean nasturtium tee pee

If you only do one garden project with kids this year let this be the one. A growing, green hideout lush with fragrant flowers and crisp peas and beans is the best place imaginable to nurture the dreams of little plant lovers. Every day will be Earth Day with this hide out.

If you try out this project please share photos as you go along. I’ll share mine too.

Have ideas of what you’d like to do next? Share your ideas and questions and I’ll talk about them in future posts.

Enjoy the day! And say a little thanks to our green earth.

From garden dirt to garden gold

Spring is here and the enthusiasm for gardening is blossoming right along with the crocuses, tulips and plum trees. Yay! Spring!

Before you run into your garden with seed packets in hand there is something we need to chat about, your soil. In my early (and very thrifty) days of gardening I utterly ignored my soil, treating it like dirt. Guess what? The plants protested and refused to grow well.

You may have overheard an organic farmer or two say this: a good farmer’s job is to grow the soil, not the plants. I finally get it.

Healthy soil is the secret to:

  • more success from your gardening efforts
  • a zillion worms for your kids to dig up
  • the best tasting food
  • going from garden plot to ecosystem

kid holding worm

2015 is the International Year of Soils. Treating your soil like dirt is so 2000’s. So, let’s get to it!

The right soil conditions start with your seedlings. You might wonder why there are so many different bags of ‘dirt’ available. Plants need different things during different stages of their life and different kinds of plants have different needs too. If you want to start seedlings inside (and that is so much fun for kids) it’s worth investing in a seedling mix. Seedling mixes are soils blended to be lighter in texture to make it easier for roots and shoots to move and do not dry out as easily so you don’t torture your baby shoots with drought if you miss a day of watering.

For your basic garden soil you are again faced with a lot of choices—bags of compost, fertilizer and who knows what—what does a smart gardener choose? First, here’s the rationale from Westcoast Seeds for why chemical fertilizers are not as good as organic:

Chemical fertilizers combine other byproducts of the petrochemical industry and other chemicals to supply intense amounts of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium to the soil. They do not feed soil biology or build healthy soil. Organic fertilizers combine naturally occurring materials and minerals to supply safe amounts of N, P, and K to your crops so that they grow vigorously, but at a natural rate. Meanwhile, they feed microbial action in the soil and contribute to a more healthy and diverse soil biology.

Let me add that if you’re gardening with kids avoiding chemicals makes gardening safer for everyone. But buyer beware. Unlike organic labels on food items “organic” is not well regulated in the garden world and misleading claims are rampant. You can look for the OMRI seal, this means a product has been okayed for use in certified organic operations in the US or Canada. A great start. Staff at a trusted garden shop are also a good resource.

What you want to add into your garden will depend somewhat on where you live. Here on the west coast our gardens tend to get acidic from all of the winter rains, so while adding Nitrogen (N) to your soil through composted manure is a good start you will also want to add lime (to reduce the acidity) and something with Phosphorous (P) and Potassium (K), bone meal or rock phosphate are popular choices.

An all-purpose complete organic fertilizer is a good choice to bring nutrients (N, P, K) into your soil along with micronutrients that will build up the health of your soil. This also ensures the fruit and veggies you grow will be nutrient-packed too.

Stop treating garden like dirt

If you want to mix your own garden cocktail the tried-and-true recipe for west coast garden soil love comes from the pioneer of small plot vegetable gardening in the Pacific Northwest, Steve Solomon.

4 parts seed meal (i.e. flax or cottonseed)
1 part rock phosphate OR 1/2 part bone meal
1 part lime
1/2 part kelp meal

Delicious! Well, delicious if you’re a garden bed waking up from a long winter’s nap.

Now it’s time to dig in the dirt and prepare for sowing seeds. Do you have a secret ingredient for garden success? Please share 🙂

’til soon.

PS. Want to become a soil ninja? Cultivate your inner scientist and take a free online soil course with FutureLearn.

Top ten plants for children’s gardens

Greetings!

The sun has been shining and people have a fresh spring in their step. Winter is over.

It’s time for hatching plans for the times of garden goodness ahead. Whether you have a little space or a lot, a garden close to home or further away, these ten kid-pleasing plants are guaranteed to bring more magic to your spring, summer and fall.


1. Berries
berry picking, berries, berries
Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries–oh my!  Nothing encourages grazing like easily-accessible berry plants. Strawberries do well in containers or can be grown in beds where they’ll create new plants each year. Choose an ever-bearing variety and enjoy fresh strawberries all summer. Blueberries (yum) are well suited to the west coast and make a nice landscape plant that doesn’t take up too much space. Plant two different varieties to get more berries from each plant.

If you don’t have space for your own berries just wait for blackberry season and explore local parks, paths and nearly every overgrown area and you’ll find enough blackberries to fill many bellies, make jam and stock your freezer.


2. Peas

You already know I am fan, but it bears repeating. Snow and snap peas are so sweet and delicious to eat fresh from the garden. They do well in the cool spring and can tolerate a lot of repeat pickings. Your spring plants will keep you in peas for a long time, but you can also replant into the summer if your plants are starting to produce less.


3. Sunflowers

A tried and true classic, sunflowers can grow to awe-inspiring heights and have beautiful flowers that provide edible seeds loved by critters and birds, large and small. Sunflowers come in a whole range of colours and sizes, so you can grow ones that will be at kid-height or tower over you. Try planting them in a circle or square to grow your own summer sunflower house–a project I’d love to profile later in the season.


4. Pole beans

Bean teepeeAnother easy-to-grow, tall classic is the pole bean. Use long bamboo poles or a two-sided trellis to grow your beans into a teepee or tunnel shape that kids can crawl through, hide in and dream in. When they get hungry from their outdoor exploration a healthy, fresh snack will be close at hand.

Plant edible nasturtium flowers alongside your beans for added colour and impress big and small friends alike with flowers in your summer salads.


5. Cherry tomatoestom cats

There wasn’t a person under five that could make it up our front stoop last summer without selecting a juicy cherry tomato as they passed by. Kids are no fools, nothing beats a homegrown tomato picked fresh off the vine and eaten while still warm from the sun. If you’d like to encourage a love of vegetables from a young age, growing your own cherry tomatoes is a great way to start.


6. Carrots

When little hands have a chance to pull up the green bushy tops of carrots to find a familiar food growing under the soil it is sure to be a surprise that delights. Try planting some of the more unusual varieties for extra appeal–the Hendrix-inspired Purple Haze made a debut in our garden last year, the baby-sized Thumbelina is another hit.


7. Corn

I’ll admit that my success growingpainted mountain corn has been limited, but nothing beats a view of tall corn stocks waving in the breeze. And nothing says summer like the taste of fresh corn on the cob. For northern climes, try the quickest growing varieties–seed packages and catalog descriptions will list days to maturity. Painted Mountain is a stand out choice that matures quickly and has colourful ears perfect for drying and using as popcorn.

For some on-the-farm fun, this summer I am determined to get my family lost in a corn maze.


8. Sweet pea flowers

I am learning to love growing flowers as much as fresh vegetables, and sweet peas are the top choice for fragrant cut flowers that are easy-to-grow. Sweet peas are a garden workhorse that bring more nitrogen into your soil and will keep producing new stems of flowers as fast as kids can cut and fill as many vases and jars as they can find.


9. Fruit trees

You know this list is not in order of importance when fruit trees are #9. Growing up in northern Canada the only tree fruit we had were crab apples, which were more fun to throw than eat. I have vivid memories of stopping at fruit stands in the Okanagan and Fraser Canyon where our mouths would water over the sweetest, juiciest peaches and cherries we’d eat all year.Fruit tree small

I am a forever convert to the love of fruit trees. The trend in fruit, even for commercial growers, are much smaller trees that are carefully pruned for maximum production in the smallest space. This is good news for the home-grower because there are now a lot of varieties that will give you great fruit without taking over your whole yard. For small spaces try columnar apples (they grow straight up) or create an espalier.

Even if you don’t have a lot of space you don’t need to miss out on the gift of summer fruit. I’ll post more on neighbourhood fruit gleaning and u-picks as the abundance of figs, plums, cherries and apples begins.


10. Pumpkins

pumpkin joyYou can’t have a list of children’s favourites without including a mention of the great pumpkin patch. From this photo I look like the one having all the fun (only partially true), but c’mon selecting and carving pumpkins is a good time.

Pumpkins and squashes are easy even for new gardeners and the vines grow impressively long with big leaves. Warning: they will extend over your sidewalk or across your lawn if you let them.

Growing and selling pumpkins has long been the intro to farm business for the children of farmers. Bring this tradition to the city with your own pumpkin patch or come fall explore local farms and look for opportunities to connect your kids with the next generation of farmers.

Even though I squeezed more than ten plants into this top ten list there are so many more crowd-pleasing fruits, veggies and flowers to try. Please post some of your own favourites to share with other readers.

Thanks for reading and see you next week with a hands-on (hands-in-the-soil) project!

Photo credits

Bean teepee: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/mmwm/7673254524/”>mmwm</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Fruit tree: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/irfanahmed76/5257336256/”>Black-Z-ro [100,000+ views]</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Hello Soil, Nice to meet you

IMG_3500Greetings!

Now that the weather is warming up, so are the soils. It’s time to get out there and dig in the dirt. There is no better way to get acquainted (or reacquainted) with your garden than doing a few simple soil tests.

Go ahead, roll up your sleeves and embrace your inner scientist. Scientists of any age will make a few new discoveries with these investigations.


1. Worm partyIMG_7043

One of the best indicators of healthy soil is the size of the worm party that you find when you dig into it. First, examine the soil surface for worm castings (tiny worm manure) and burrow holes. Then, dig out about 6 inches of soil and count the number of worms squirming on your shovel. Three worms are good company; five are a party. No worms means you need to bust out the snacks and add organic matter to your soil so your worm friends have something to feed on.

Worms are the best
Worms aerate the soil to improve water infiltration and their tiny castings (worm poo) infuse the soil with enzymes, bacteria, organic matter and plant nutrients that help your plants grow stronger and faster.

Worm buffet
To encourage a worm party in your garden lay out a nice spread of organic matter. In the fall, I cover my garden beds with leaves to protect the soil from the heavy rains (and rains and rains) and give the worms something to eat over the winter. In the spring, you can add things that will break down more quickly–coffee grounds (an abundant urban resource), lawn clippings or composted manure all work well. My 80 year-old neighbour who has an AMAZING garden digs all of his vegetable scraps straight into his garden beds. There is definitely a wild worm party going on under his incredible tomato and bean plants.


2. The main squeeze
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To figure out what your soils are made of just give ’em a squeeze. There are three general soil classifications: clay, sandy, or loamy. Clay is nutrient rich, but slow draining. Sand is quick draining, but has trouble retaining nutrients and moisture. Loam is the most enviable of soils–it retains moisture and nutrients but doesn’t stay soggy.

To determine your type of soil, take a handful of moist (but not wet) soil from your garden and give it a firm squeeze.

Open your hand, does it?IMG_7055

  1. Hold its shape and crumble when you gently poke it. Congratulations your main squeeze is a loam!
  2. Hold its shape and when poked stays firm. You’ve got a clay soil.
  3. Fall apart as soon as you open your hand.
    Fetch the beach blanket, you’ve got sandy soil.

If you don’t have the perfect loam don’t despair, lay out the worm buffet of organic matter and it will improve. If you have very sandy or clay rich soil then you might want to consider adding peat moss for a quick injection of organic matter.


3. Shake it up
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The squeeze test gives you a basic idea of your soil composition. If you want to get slightly more scientific, grab a straight-sided jar with a tight fitting lid, your shovel and dig a hole 6 inches deep. Fill the jar with about a cup of soil removing any sticks, worms or stones that sneak in there.

Add a little bit of dish soap (a few squirts of liquid soap or a tablespoon of powder will do), fill the jar with water, put on the lid and shake, shake, shake for about 3 minutes. Everyone can get involved.

All of the shaking lets the soap separate the soil particles for a more accurate test (this is totally scientific, wait till you see the chart below). Once you’re done shaking, set the jar on a flat surface where it can rest for a day or two while the soil particles slowly settle into layers.

The sand particles are the heaviest and will settle to the bottom in about a minute. Silt is the next heaviest particle and will settle out after about an hour. You can distinguish between the two because the silt layer is darker than the sand. Clay, the lightest particle in the mix, can take from one to two days to settle out. It will be fine textured and light in color.

This is when we get really scientific.

To figure out the percentages of sand, silt and clay in your soil sample measure the total amount of sediment (aka soil) with a ruler once it has all settled out. The total amount (say, 3 inches) represents 100 percent of the soil sample. To determine the percentages of sand, silt and clay measure each layer and divide by the amount of the total sample. Then, use the time-tested Soil Texture Triangle and see how your soil measures up in the classification.

soiltriangle_large

Notice the sweet LOAM spot in the centre. Ah, soil perfection. But don’t fret if you’re off-centre, just note your soil type, add organic matter and adjust your watering to match your soil. Sandy soils are going to need more frequent watering, clay soils tend to get waterlogged so will be slower to warm in spring and can be over-watered, but they’re nutrient rich.

If the soil in different parts of your garden seem more sandy or clay-y than others you may want to do a test for each area.


4. pH(at) test

IMG_7069Okay, you’ve squeezed, you’ve shaken, you’ve hosted a worm party, here is one more important test to try–a pH test. If you live on the west coast all of the winter rains have probably made your soil acidic (the water leaches out key nutrients that keep your soil from becoming acidic). Most plants are happiest with a well-balanced soil of 7 or 6.5. This is the pH level where the most nutrients are available–at pH 7.5 or higher your soil is alkaline, 6 or below it is acidic.

You can buy a very simple and inexpensive pH test kit at most garden or hardware stores, it’s quick and fun to conduct a little chemistry. The one I have cost less than $10 and with the magic of a secret powder, more shaking and a few minutes resting time it gives me the colour-coded answer of my soil pH.

Once you know your pH you can amend your garden (or garden plans) accordingly. Some plants–blueberries, foxgloves, azaleas, heather, and strawberries–prefer acidic soil. If you want to grow other fruits, vegetables or flowers you can add dolomite limestone or even finely crushed eggshells to increase the calcium and balance out the acidity.

Alright, good luck.

May your soils be rich and see you next week for more gardening fun.